Dealing with ambiguity – an anthology
There’s no other phrase than VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, coined in the 90s – that can appropriately describe the current scenario marred by the pandemic.
With no preceding playbook in sight, decision makers were left grappling to strike a balance between prudent cautiousness and panicked over-reaction. Playing it safe could have been a sensible response, but it comes with its own risks. Leaders today face what scholars would call an ambiguous threat. An instinctive reaction as a human being is typically to underplay the threat, assuming oneself and the immediate periphery to be immune, and subsequently, delay action.
There is a breed of leaders though, who fought their instinct of living in denial to take into consideration the larger reality. Take for example the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, who in the face of an ambiguous threat, took a bold decision as early as March 21, to impose restrictions to arrest the spread of COVID-19, with just 52 confirmed cases. She was highly criticized by the opposition for her move, but the results attest to her moves for authenticity. New Zealand is today one of the countries with the lowest infections.
The takeaway – attitude matters.
All leadership begins with self-leadership. Given the immense uncertainty, it’s vital that leaders manifest certainty in actions and decisions to stoke down fears and anxiety surrounding the current situation. According to a paper by Stanford University, ‘attitude certainty’ offers a psychological safety net that can help us keep fear in check, in uncertain and turbulent times. As newspaper headlines dial up the fear, leaders must be the harbingers of reassurance. Be decisive. Putting off a decision for a while longer till validation comes in the form of new information may feel like a sensible option in times of uncertainty but has a volatile propensity in the long term. Simply because you have been left behind in the fight. Instead, make the best decision possible in a given scenario and course correct as you go along. don’t let the fear of taking a wrong decision slip into inaction.
Here is what our leaders feel are important levers in dealing with ambiguity:
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the worst of times bring out the best in people. The ability of leaders to call upon their lesser-known courage and temperament is indispensable in a crisis.
The single biggest learning for me, and I think for everybody out there, from the COVID-19 situation is that human beings by nature can deal with a crisis, if they choose to. I think it's the mindset that matters. there is always that one person you would know who can manage ambiguity perfectly well, without a formal process. It is just about what you choose to do. Then again, in a role like mine, there’s no choice but to go headfirst in handling the situation.
– Satish Nair, VP – Business Head
Fundamentally, a person adept in dealing with ambiguity is a person who can effectively cope with change, shift gears comfortably, decide and act without having the total picture, and handle risk and uncertainty. Those with a strong ability to deal with ambiguity are often described as adaptable, flexible, and comfortable with change.
Since the day I have joined BPM, every day I walk into the office, I find something I didn't know before. It’s a continuous learning. It has strengthened my ability to adapt in a crisis for which we have had no precedence. I think all of us have this ability to adapt and evolve. if you are positive, and you keep learning from experiences, I think all of us will be able to stand up to anything that life brings.
– Vinay Gopal Rao, VP - Strategic Business Practice Head.
Work towards a goal
It is a known fact that the majority of people work best in an environment where expectations, contributions, and recognition are well defined. In an ambiguous situation like that of the pandemic, the set parameters and protocols may become haphazard. Leaders in such a scenario need to sift away the chaos and set a common goal for the organization.
For me, it is important to have at least a skeleton goal plan for the long-term, or a vision – personal and organizational – to stay on course in the face of ambiguity. That’s exactly what we set out to do when COVID-19 struck. In life too, when there are ups and downs, one kind of plays along. We make assessments and adjustments as we go. Is the goal wavering? Is it making me waiver from what I set out to do? Such introspection is a crucial part of dealing with ambiguity.
– Manoj Nair, Head of Marketing.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of empathy in more ways than one. Our dealings with the clients have evolved accordingly. We are more connected and transparent. As a result, the response from clients we have received has been phenomenal, in terms of feedback. The constant collaboration with clients during the pandemic has cemented the trust in the relationship. The kind of lasting trust one feels for another when facing a crisis together. The mutual understanding of such a bond can go a long way in delivering superior business value to the clients in the future.
Looking back at the evolving situation in a VUCAD world, each one of us faced a situation where there had to be no disruptions at work. The ‘belief’ many have is that a leader has to have all the ‘right’ answers in such a crisis. But what is seldom understood is that being right always may not be the best option, but to do what is appropriate in any situation. A leader will be more effective if they have their ear to the ground, understand the situation, and take a call accordingly. The chances of people listening, accepting, complying with that decision will be a lot more than just going out and announcing what needs to be done. We were one of the few organizations where we had the least amount of disruption at work. The twin objectives of business continuity and employee safety were met when we based our decisions on empathy. Not surprisingly, we had the best of scores both in our CSAT and ESAT surveys with our customers and employees respectively.
-Raghavendra K, SVP & Global head - Human Resource Development
Clear communication can iron out uncertainties on any given day, and more so during a crisis. The way Infosys BPM teams transitioned overnight to work from home when the pandemic broke out was possible because of clear communication. When people know what is expected of them, the response is a committed one.
Ultimately, this is what determines sound execution - having daily governance with the team, the interaction between the manager and the team leads, between team leads and executives. Clear communication is key to deliver best-in-class services to clients and for sorting out challenges in an uncertain environment as todays. Remember, challenges related to infrastructure, such as wi-fi issues, mal-functioning laptops or desk tops, IT-backend connectivity, training for new joiners, monitoring of daily performance, continue to bog teams even on usual days, and requires active communication to manage the consequences effectively.
– Ravishankar P, AVP – Business head.